Jennifer Hecker is an artist, a professor and a mentor. Over the course of her 30 years teaching at The College at Brockport, she has helped students grow their passions and learn more about themselves.
Hecker’s main concentration is sculpture, a subject she says her students can find a variety of lessons, even if they won’t be pursuing a career in that field.
“I realize that 99 percent of the students that I teach are not going to become sculptors,” she said. “So, what I mostly try to do is expand their ideas of what they think sculpture is.”
Many students enter college with a vague idea of where to start their career path, looking to professors like Hecker for inspiration and guidance on their journey.
For Hecker, it was a journey that almost didn’t happen.
Growing up in New Orleans, Hecker did not have access to art classes. Though she’s always been a maker, working with her hands and learning to sew from her mother, it wasn’t until her family moved to Chicago that she was exposed to her first art class.
“I went to an over-crowded high school. That was the first time I took art. Everyone in the class was much better than me because they have all been doing it,” she said. “But I loved it, so I was up for the challenge.”
Hecker says she knew choosing to study art in college was a long shot for her. She decided to take a few art classes until something more “practical” or exciting came along.
“But it didn’t, and in college I looked to my professors and thought, ‘Gee, that must be a great job,’ so I think that’s when I decided I’d like to pursue that,” Hecker said.
Hecker earned her BFA from the University of Illinois. She says, at the time, sculpture was still a male-dominated field, it wasn’t until studying for her MFA at the University of Minnesota that she had a female sculpture professor that became a sort of mentor for her.
Hecker now gets to be that inspiration for her own students.
Many of her former students have gone on to become art teachers and sculpture professors at different high schools and universities all over the country.
Hecker has access to a combination of materials, flame-worked glass, welded steel, rusted cast iron, old wood and other found objects. She works with a wide variety of materials and techniques to show her students that sculpture is not just one thing.
“I once had a student that told me she hated sculpture. So I asked, ‘What do you like?’ and she told me buttons. So I helped her learn how to weld and create armatures that she could cover with her buttons,” said Hecker.
That student went on to become a “very successful” fiber artist.
Art does not stop in the classroom. Hecker is also the chair of the art placement committee at The College at Brockport. This committee is responsible for the new benches in the Liberal Arts Building and most art seen around campus.
“Those benches are very interesting, We did a call for art from the trees that were cut down when the building was made. And we have another one going on right now because they cut trees down from the alumni house,” said Hecker.
The art placement committee has selected seven artists to make sculptural benches from those trees.
This has inspired the college to invite more artist to display different styles of art all across campus. One of Hecker’s former students, Nick Viele, recently earned his BS in Studio-Art with a concentration in sculpture and is now in the graduate program at RIT. Viele was asked to “art-up” some of the parking meters around campus.
“I’m proud of him. I like those kinds of projects,” Hecker says. “The response from other students and campus has been quite surprising and positive.”
Alyssa Williams graduated in 2014 with a concentration in graphic design.
“I enjoyed my time at Brockport. I learned a lot and felt very supported by the professors to do what I wanted,” said Williams.
Williams still keeps in contact with a few of her professors turned mentors. Though Hecker is not one of them, Williams says she did learn a lot from Hecker’s class.
“I really got into wood burning after college. You could say she taught me to step outside my comfort zone and try new materials to work,” said Williams.
For more than 30 years, Hecker has encouraged her students to explore different avenues of creativity. She has received several “First Destination Survey” award certificates, recognizing her for influencing the lives of graduates.
The most important lesson Hecker hopes to pass on to her students is to realize success involves being confident and taking risks.
“I love hiding away and making art, but I also have to force myself to get out there, show the work,” she said. “It’s highly unlikely the world is going to come knock on your door. You have to go out there, put yourself at risk and put yourself out there.”